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JACOBS: Let's examine the elephants in the chambers

Mike Jacobs

BISMARCK — Before we turn decisively away from the 65th session of the North Dakota Legislature, let's have a look at the elephant in the chamber.

I should say elephants, I suppose. There were 119 Republicans, amounting to massive majorities in both houses, 81 to 13 in the House and 38 to 9 in the Senate.

During the session, I amused myself by identifying the many flavors among these Republicans. In this undertaking, I had the help of a couple of journalists, half a dozen lobbyists and at least a double handful of legislators themselves.

I have the list beside me now. It lists 28 flavors. This is more than I can expound upon in this space.

These flavors range from "Legacy Republicans" whose excuse for affiliation with the party is that their parents were Republicans, all the way to "the plainly peeved," whose Republican affiliation arises from some grievance, whether a petty regulation, a license fee or a tax increase. Actually, my hand-written list uses a different p-word for these Republicans. I'm sure you will be able to supply it for yourself. Among these peeved Republicans are both bullies and victims.

These are flavors of convenience.

There are also flavors of opportunity. These Republicans suppose that government exists to further their own ambitions, whether it is for tax breaks for business developments, land swaps favoring their interests, or their friends, or public works projects that excite them or the voters.

The Republican caucuses in both houses contain what might be called "Americanists" or "constitutionalists." These would include those who unabashedly espouse American exceptionalism and tried to rewrite public school curricula to better transmit the idea to young people.

And it would include those "strict constructionists" who can find a constitutional objection to just about everything, except gun ownership.

Nor should we overlook the "federalists," who think whatever the state decides should override whatever the federal government decides. An elaboration of that notion holds that local governments — counties, cities, townships — should be sovereign above the state.

Among legislators there are also those who might be termed "government Republicans." Their concern isn't so much what government does as it is how government does it. Among these are the "legislative prioritists," who believe that branch ought to be the supreme power in the state.

A subset of these Republicans might be called "House supremacists," whose view is that the House of Representatives most surely represents the people, and that it and its leadership should be respected. You get a single guess as to the leadership of that caucus.

None of these flavors, you may have noticed, has an ideological base.

Yet there are flavors of ideological Republicans, as well.

It isn't true that religious conservatives or family values activists are supreme among them. This particular flavor was chastened in the 2014 elections and hasn't recovered its previous bravado. There were no abortion bills this year, for example, in sharp contrast to earlier sessions.

Faith is an important force among Republicans, of course, both the judgmental kind that holds that government's function is to define sin and proscribe it, and the more trusting kind that assumes divine protection.

It seems to me, though, that the most important flavor among all of these is the one that holds that human beings are responsible for their own lives, that freedom comes with risks, and that individuals should be prepared to accept the first and deflect the latter.

This was crystallized in debate about a bill requiring carbon monoxide detectors in rental property. There was vigorous debate about this idea, but both houses passed it. Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed the bill, and his veto was sustained.

The veto message captured was succinct, and it captured this flavor of Republicanism. Burgum wrote, "While carbon monoxide represents a very small, yet measurable life safety risk in residential rental property, this risk can and should be managed by local building codes, property owners and renters themselves, rather than more burdensome statewide regulations."

In other words, take care of it yourselves, at the local level, and live — or die — with it.

This doesn't exhaust the flavors of Republicanism. In this regard, we must remember the parable of the blind men and the elephant. This arose in India, Wikipedia tells me, and spread across the planet.

Blind men who examined the elephant couldn't agree on what had confronted them — and that may be a useful analogy for journalists, lobbyists and legislators themselves, who examined the elephant in the Legislature and couldn't provide a complete description.